In the Studio: Part 1 – Preparation
Recently I’ve had the good fortune to take several trips into the recording studio, each situation was entirely different from the last. Each session, or group of sessions, highlighted in my mind different features necessary for an efficient, pleasant and successful session.
Unless you are doing both the performing and the engineering, (something I advise against if you can avoid it) some things are out of the performer’s control (like equipment, studio layout, etc.). Much, however, is within your control. I’d like to talk about those things today so that your next trip into the studio can be a success.
Obviously if you are just a hired gun on a session, being prepared has much to do with skills in playing by ear, sight reading skills etc. and is the subject of a different discussion. This discussion is related to projects we are more involved in.
When I was young, it always amazed me to hear about a group spending months or even years “in the studio” putting together their next album. I was particularly dumbfounded when I discovered, more often than I expected, that their first album was done in one day on a budget of $600. Although pressures from labels, producers, managers, touring schedules, etc. surely played a role in the former process, I have learned that the major difference in these two situations is the level of preparation. Since most of us don’t have that 1980’s rock star budget, let’s looks at what preparation means when it comes to recording.
Know your music cold. The better you are at performing the music you are going to record, the more comfortable you will be in front of a mic and smoother the session will be. The aforementioned “rockstars” often hadn’t even written their songs yet when they entered the studio for that second or third album. Unless you are playing in your own studio at home you likely won’t have that luxury. Even if you do, why waste everyone’s time and your hard drive space?
Compose the music, if necessary, and perform it often long before you the mics and baffles are set up. If you can, don’t walk into the studio until you can perform the pieces well at the drop of a hat. Recording “live” performances and listening back to them can be very instructive in this regard. Recording your performances, even on poor and inadequate equipment, will help to prepare yourself musically for the session that will produce the final product. It will also reduce the need for editing, which is a major time and money waster. Approach the session, as much as possible, as if you are simply recording a performance and prepare yourself in such a manner.
If you approach your session with this “performance” mindset, not only will you be prepared for the session but the recording will have more continuity. I suggest aiming for a “recording of a performance” rather than a heavily edited, Frankenstein-like or patchwork creation whenever possible. Your recording will have more energy, life and more truth to it.
Even if you aren’t in a situation where you can capture a complete performance (perhaps you there is only one person in the studio at a time), being prepared doesn’t just help us do well individually. It also helps the others the around us (musicians, engineers and producers), and the project as a whole, flourish. One poorly prepared musician just stresses out the rest of the group and inhibits their ability to perform at their highest level.
Don’t try to fix your musical problems when the tape is rolling.
If you have general intonation problems, or issues with time or groove already, it ain’t gonna suddenly fix itself just because you are in the studio. Work on all these things OUTSIDE of the studio and, if it’s important to you. Fix it before you hit record in the studio. Once you hit record you must do you level best, but also accept that in some areas “you play like you play.”
Trying to fix your musical shortcomings in the studio will simply add stress to the process, waste time and money and often lower the quality of the music making. Fix it before you ever hit record. If it matters enough to you, don’t hit record until you can perform at the level you wish. Of course, many things can be ”improved” these days through the “magic” of editing. Think of this as a last resort. It will save you money, time and honor.
What’s been your experience in the studio? Share your stories in the comments.
Photo by Ben Adamson